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WQXR Features

Café Concert: Matt Haimovitz

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Video: Matt Haimovitz performs live in the WQXR Café

You may have seen Matt Haimovitz in an unusual place before: He took on the crazy task of performing a 50-state tour in 2003 that brought him to dive bars, coffeehouses and nightclubs. Not only did it draw people who don't go to regular concert halls, but it also showcased American composers from Augusta Read Thomas to Jim Hendrix (Haimovitz's searing arrangement of Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner).

In the WQXR Café, Haimovitz plays on the same 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello that he took to the Tractor Tavern in Seattle and the former New York punk club CBGB. The instrument has a special significance for the cellist these days. On his latest album, “Matteo: 300 Years of an Italian Cello,” Haimovitz presents music that would have once been heard on this very instrument, notably the quasi-improvisatory works by the 17th-century composer Domenico Gabrieli (heard in the below video).

“I thought it would be wonderful to bridge these 300 years, imagining the origin of the instrument and the early days of what they used to play on it,” he said.

The other piece Haimovitz plays at WQXR represents the more avant-garde end of the spectrum, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Ai Limiti Della Notte, a 1979 compendium of high-modernist sounds and extended techniques. It’s also a chance to show off the variety of colors his Gofriller cello can produce.

“It has so many overtones,” he said. “That’s why I love playing not only Bach but Gabrieli, where I have to accompany myself and play my own bass. But even when I go higher and I play Jimi Hendrix on it I can get some scratchy electric guitar sounds out of it.” Other well-known soloists to play Gofrillers include Pablo Casals and Janos Starker.

Although Italian solo pieces may strike longtime followers of Haimovitz's career as somewhat conventional, the cellist has also been touring in support of his “Meeting of the Spirits,” a big band album that was nominated for a Grammy Award. It includes arrangements of jazz classics by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, George Gershwin, Charles Mingus and others scored for Uccello, Haimovitz's cello ensemble and assorted other instruments.

Haimovitz says that regardless of the collaboration, there's often a serendipity at play, something that goes back to his 50-state tour. He recalls one performance in a Haitian bar in a gritty Miami neighborhood. "It was an interesting assortment of people,” he said. “I’ve never seen such diversity ever performing. I remember an African-American guy with the quintessential hip-hop – the metal teeth and tattoos and I mentioned that I’m going to play Bach and he was just beaming.”

Text: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber